The Stanley Cup playoffs — the best postseason in all of sports — have never been more difficult to predict. Not one series looks like a gimme. Even the No. 1 vs. No. 8 seeds (Boston against Montreal in the East; San Jose against Anaheim in the West) could go either way. So, please folks, keep that in mind as we put forth our fearless predictions for the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Best first-round matchup
There are two solid rivalries in the first round: Boston vs. Montreal and San Jose vs. Anaheim. But there might not be a nastier showdown in the opening round that the battle for Pennsylvania as the Penguins play the Flyers. Both teams finished with 99 points, but the Pens get home ice thanks to a Flyers loss on the last day of the season — and that home ice will be the difference.
Most intriguing matchup
This is weird. San Jose and Anaheim meet in the first round, the first time two California-based teams have met in the playoffs since the Los Angeles Kings played the Oakland Seals in 1969.
The team to beat in the East
Hard to pick against the top-seeded Bruins, who had seven players with at least 20 goals (and defenseman Zdeno Chara had 19). The question mark is in goal. Tim Thomas led the NHL in goals-against average (2.10) and save percentage (.933), but has little postseason experience. Pick a name out of a hat, but something says Carolina is going to make a splash. The Hurricanes went 13-1-2 before dropping the final two meaningless games of the season.
The team to beat in the West
The Red Wings are the defending champs and, at times, look like the NHL's best team. But they've also looked wobbly at times and, even though he always proves us wrong, goalie Chris Osgood seems like the weak link on this team. It wouldn't surprise anyone if Detroit became the first repeat champ since it achieved the feat in 1998, but the Sharks, with former Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle, below, is our pick out West.
Bruins vs. Canadiens: These teams meet for the 32nd time in the postseason. Boston won the season series 5-0-1 and will win this series as well. Boston in six.
Capitals vs. Rangers: The Caps are still a season, a gritty forward or two and a reliable goalie away from winning the Cup, but they should have enough (barely) to take out John Tortorella's Rangers. Caps in seven.
Devils vs. Hurricanes: When Marty Brodeur returned in goal for Jersey, the Devils looked like the team to beat, but then came that strange 0-5-1 streak in late March. That spooked us. Hurricanes in seven.
Penguins vs. Flyers: The Pens have two of the top three players in the league in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but Philly has physically dominated the Pens at various times this season. Pittsburgh gets a slight nod because it finished on an 18-3-4 tear. Penguins in seven.
Sharks vs. Ducks: A No. 8 seed has beaten a No. 1 seven times since 1994 and Ducks seem better than an eighth seed with players such as Ryan Getzlaf , Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne. But no upset this year. Sharks in six.
Red Wings vs. Blue Jackets: Columbus is making its first appearance in the postseason. Its players have a combined 401 games of playoff experience. The Red Wings — 1,793 games. Red Wings in five.
Canucks vs. Blues: Two red-hot teams. Vancouver went 23-7-2 down the stretch, while the Blues went a league-best 25-9-7 in the second half to go from last in the West to the sixth seed. The Blues would be a great story, but. … Canucks in six.
Blackhawks vs. Flames: Chicago swept four games against Calgary this season, outscoring the Flames 19-7. The Flames have more playoff experience, but Chicago has it where it counts: in goal with Nikolai Khabibulin. Blackhawks in six.
Team you should root for
The Chicago Blackhawks are back in the postseason for the first time since 2002 — and only five 'Hawks were in the NHL at that time. One of those is former Bolts goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, above, who is back to his old form and has the fans in the Windy City fired up for their first Cup since 1961.